There’s no denying Ohio State’s confidence going into Saturday – at least outwardly.
The Buckeyes have said all the right things to address the shortcomings that cost them a chance at a championship a year ago. Ryan Day said Tuesday his roster has turned in an “excellent preseason” with just three days remaining before its top-five matchup with Notre Dame. Jim Knowles said the revamped Ohio State defense is “100% ready to go,” and Cade Stover said the Buckeyes “pride ourselves” on running the ball this year.
It’s everything one would want to hear when projecting a particular team to embark on a national title run, and many of us at Eleven Warriors have done exactly that. But those aspirations could come crashing down with haste if the Buckeyes don’t clear the first huddle, which might just be the toughest they have all regular season.
Day has spoken like a head coach who knows he has something special on his hands with the 2022 Buckeye team, but that has just as much to do with the mentality it's harnessed after last year’s struggles as it does its expectations for greatness in the season to come.
“I think coming off of last year, there's no big heads. I mean, this team is hungry,” Day said at Tuesday’s press conference. “This team has been hungry. It's been gritty. And we gotta go win this first game, and they know that. So there's no big heads on this team right now. We got a lot to prove.”
Day said the Buckeyes are driven by their 2021 slip-ups against Oregon, a comparable early nonconference matchup to the one they have Saturday, and Michigan. They’ve heard the criticism all offseason and it’s fueled them ahead of the new year. Now though, critics have quickly become believers, if the Buckeyes’ No. 2 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 poll is any indication.
Day wants all feedback and speculation, positive or negative, to be tuned out as Ohio State hosts the fifth-ranked team in the country this weekend.
“This is the only game that I have. I'm not thinking about the game after that or the game after that. This is the most important game."– Paris Johnson Jr.
“I think when you're at Ohio State you can't listen to that. Because they're the same ones that said things that weren't very good, the same ones that are saying that maybe we’re one of the better teams in the country coming into this year,” Day said. “So when you listen to other people's opinions, you respect them more than your own. So you just have to focus on what really matters and just kind of distract all the noise and keep it out of the building.”
The Buckeyes ultimately found their stride after last season’s Week 2 loss to the Ducks. Ohio State rattled off nine straight wins thereafter, culminating in what might have been its finest performance of the year with a 56-7 demolition of then-No. 7 Michigan State in late November.
Given its letdown showing the very next week against its archrival, though, Day’s made the commitment to consistency something of a mantra for this year’s Ohio State team. In place of the outside noise, Day wants his team to hone in on that philosophy entering the season.
“We don't talk about any of those type of things. Because that's not what the focus is. Competitive stamina is what we've been talking about, because we know that at Ohio State, you have to bring it every single week,” Day said. “In order to get to reach our goals and where we need to be, we have to bring it every day and every game. And so if we start looking ahead and lose a day, then we put ourselves at risk. So focusing on the process, focusing on the day and making sure that we have the stamina that we need to win the game.”
Buckeye captain Cade Stover said staying off of social media, even in an era of self-marketing and NIL deals, is crucial to that pursuit.
“I think the main thing for this generation, I mean, put your phone down,” Stover said Tuesday. “If you don't read what everybody says, you don't hear what anybody's saying, you don't know. A lot of times that comes through all the social media platforms. They can put us dead last in the country this year, we really don't care to be honest with you.”
Perhaps the Buckeyes’ commitment to the task at hand, and the potential consequences of its outcome, was best summed up by first-year starting left tackle Paris Johnson Jr.’s attitude toward the season opener. Johnson isn’t thinking about his preseason All-American status or prospects in next spring’s NFL draft. Instead, it’s on the threat posed by the Fighting Irish, who the Buckeyes must get through before considering any further spoils down the line – individual or otherwise.
“This is the only game that I have. I'm not thinking about the game after that or the game after that. This is the most important game,” Johnson said. “And with the draft stock and everything, my mindset, I try to remind myself every day; that stuff, the NFL will always be there. And if anything right now, trying to think about that is a distraction. Because the most important thing to me is beating Notre Dame. It's the most important game to me right now in this moment.”
Day fielded questions about the tradition both programs bring into the contest – just the seventh ever between Ohio State and Notre Dame – and the magnitude of the recruiting weekend and the litany of coaching staff and roster connections on either side. The common thread among all his answers was he can’t afford to let any such frills distract him from the most important result on Saturday.
There's no doubt Ohio State sounds locked in for a contest that Day said “the nation will be watching.” By the end of Saturday night, the country will know if the Buckeyes’ confidence has legs or if the preseason bluster may have gotten the better of them ahead of their season-opening blue and gold obstacle.
“We have to be ready to go at 7:30 on Saturday night. So we’re preparing and we're going to continue to prepare to make sure we're ready right at that moment to play with the mental, physical and emotional energy that we need,” Day said. “But this team certainly wants to be great, and it's gonna start Sept. 3rd.”